Soul singer Fontella Bass, who represented the third generation of a storied family of St. Louis gospel singers, died Wednesday night in her home town, three weeks after suffering a heart attack. She was 72.
Bass is best known for co-writing and recording “Rescue Me,” which in 1965 became the first million-selling record for the Chicago-based Chess label in a decade (since Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene”). You can read the details of her life in this fine obituary written by Dave Hoekstra in the Sun-Times, which touches on her marriage (1965-1978) to trumpeter Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But there’s more to her jazz connection to that; in fact, you could reasonably argue that Fontella Bass played a major role in the formation of the Art Ensemble in the first place.
As recounted in George Lewis’s acclaimed history of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), A Power Stronger Than Itself, Bowie – who also grew up in St. Louis – moved to Chicago because of his wife’s success. Bass’s hit single made her a hot commodity, and Chess wanted to make more records with her. As Lewis writes: “Bowie and Bass were married just as her career was taking off. ‘Naturally, we followed the money, and moved to Chicago,’ Bowie noted. He began doing jingles sessions at Chess, and soon became Bass’s musical director, working with the groups of singers Jackie Wilson and Jerry Butler.”
Bowie’s presence in Chicago, and his natural musical instincts, led to his joining AACM founder Muhal Richard Abrams’s Experimental Band, the forerunner of the AACM itself. There he met the other musicians with whom he would eventually form the Art Ensemble, the most famous and successful of all the AACM groups.
In addition to bringing Bowie to town, Bass will be forever idolized as the woman who first made the early Art Ensemble – at the time a wildly avant-garde unit, despite all the members’ deep ties to earlier jazz and blues – accessible to mainstream music fans.
In 1969, while sojourning in Paris, the Art Ensemble (featuring Bass and the newly added Don Moye on drums) recorded music for the French New Wave film Les Stances A Sophie. The soundtrack album, now available only on vinyl, included a soul-funk ditty with the odd title “Theme de Yoyo.” Its opening strains featured Bass’s captivating, full-bodied voice carrying the lyric “Your head is like a yo-yo / Your neck is like a string” and it became a cult hit that has outlasted the film itself.
For many years, and despite several moments of musical anarchy near the top, it was the only Art Ensemble track that you might hear on conventional jazz radio; it certainly helped spread the band’s name beyond the experimental-jazz audience.
Funeral arrangements for Fontella Bass are pending; she is survived by four children. (Lester Bowie died in 1999.)